Labor Notes, March 2003
Palestinian Unionists Tour U.S. to Counter AFL-CIO’s ‘One-Sided’ Stance on Conflict
by Siobhan McGrath, UAW Local 2110, and Jordan Flaherty, Organizer, SEIU
To bring together U.S. unionists with their Palestinian counterparts, representatives from the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) toured the U.S. for a month in November and December. The tour was coordinated by a broad coalition of labor activists, who volunteered to host the delegation in 20 cities in Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Michigan, D.C., Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts.
The meetings gave U.S. workers a chance to hear firsthand accounts of how- Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has affected the Palestinian civilian population.
The PGFTU is the federation of nearly all the unions of Palestinian workers who live in the West Bank and Gaza. It represents 75% of the Palestinian workforce, and includes workers in agriculture, the public sector, construction, health services, and other industries in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
The PGFTU representatives were Executive Committee member Mohammed Saleh Aruri, who is in charge of Legal Affairs and based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and Hekmat Al-Serraj from the PGFTU’s Women’s Affairs Department in Gaza. In Seattle, the King County Labor Council sponsored their event AFL-CIO staffers coordinated much of their Washington, D.C. visit, and in the Bay Area, the Labor Committee for Peace and Justice organized their trip. In New York City, they spoke to members of the Jewish Labor Committee, as well as to audiences in Brooklyn, Harlem, and Morningside Heights, and at a large event held at the AFSCME District Council 1707 hall.
Organizers of the tour were motivated by a view that the AFL-CIO’s stance on Israel and Palestine has been one-sided. President John Sweeney spoke at a national “Rally for Israel” in Washington in April 2002, at the same time that the Israeli army was invading nearly all the major West Bank cities and towns.
The AFL-CIO is also a strong promoter of Israeli bonds: 1,500 labor organizations have reportedly invested $5 billion in these bonds, which help to finance an occupation that the UN has called illegal.
At every event, the unionists’ testimony moved audiences to tears and to action.
Al-Serraj began her talk by saving that she lives a short distance from Aruri, but because of the restrictions on travel Palestinians face, she can only see him outside of their country. “I had to come to the U.S. to meet Mohammed, who lives only a few miles from my home,” she said. “All because he lives in the West Bank, and I live in Gaza.” Al-Serraj then drew a picture of the conditions under which Palestinians live:
Since the current Intifada (uprising) began in September 2000, 130,000 Palestinian workers have lost their jobs inside Israel, she said. Unemployment has reached 50%, which leaves 65% of Palestinians under the poverty line.
In the West Bank and Gaza, workers have been fired from workplaces they have not been able to get to. Factories have closed because road closures mean the materials can’t get in and products can’t get out. In addition, workers have been killed by the Israeli military while trying to get to their jobs inside Israel. In February, the PGFTU headquarters in Nablus were attacked with F-16s and helicopters, destroying half the office, including equipment and files.
Aruri gave a more personal testimony about how the occupation affects everyone in Palestine. He described chairs in his children’s elementary school, left empty for classmates killed by Israeli soldiers. He portrayed the pain and humiliation, as well as the economic devastation, caused by curfews, checkpoints, and closure.
“During these last two years,” said Aruri, “most Palestinians that traveled to work in Israel have lost their jobs, and in the West Bank and Gaza, commerce has been shut down by-the Israeli military. This has been especially hard on the poorest and most vulnerable, such as those in the refugee camps.”
For the workers who were employed in Israel, the PGFTU is attempting to reclaim dues money that has been illegally held for decades by Histadrut, the Israeli Federation of Labor. Histradut had signed an agreement with the PGFTU in 1995 agreeing to turn over these dues.
Both Al-Serraj and Aruri stressed that prior to September 2000, Palestinian unions were making Serious efforts to build relationships with Israeli unions; these efforts have been all but destroyed. While working towards a peaceful future, for the time being they are providing emergency aid, legal services, vocational education, affordable health insurance, and advocacy for women’s rights.
They need funds to publish educational materials, do trainings on workers’ rights and union elections, buy office equipment, and hire staff. Send donations to PGFTU Aid, c/o OFLC/Pride at Work, PO Box 23215, Seattle WA 98102; 206-903-9488; firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, or ways to get involved, contact Sharon Wallace, P.O. Box 1128, Prospect, KY 40059; 502-225-9425 or 502-599-0261; fax 502-225-9298; email@example.com.